James Gandolfini Remembered by David Chase, Other Friends and Family at New York Funeral

Mourners outside James Gandolfini's funeral.
Mourners outside James Gandolfini's funeral.
 

NEW YORK – More than 1,500 mourners - friends, family and members of the public - packed the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in Morningside Heights on Thursday morning to say a final farewell to James Gandolfini.

The 51-year-old actor's sudden death on June 19 shocked family and friends, leaving his wife, Deborah Lin Gandolfini, widowed and his children -- Michael, 13, and nine-month-old daughter, Liliana -- without a father.

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Gandolfini's widow, dressed in a black sleeveless dress, gazed out at the packed congregation that included a slew of actors (Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Lorraine Bracco, Aida Turturro, John Turturro, Dustin Hoffman, Tony Sirico, Vincent Curatola, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden, Chris Noth, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Julianna Margulies) and industry executives (HBO's Richard Plepler and Michael Lombardo, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes) and noted that "ironically" her husband was "very private." But he had a generous nature and kind heart. "People mattered to him," she said. "He was always secretly helping someone."

Gandolfini's close friend Thomas Richardson remembered a man who would come up with "a bag of cash to help a friend," show up at shelters to "feed the homeless," ride on the Mardi Gras float "the year after Katrina," help residents of Superstorm Sandy-ravaged Breezy Point and share "sushi with the teamsters" on the set of The Sopranos. "It seemed like he crammed 100 years of memories into his short life," said Richardson.

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Sopranos creator David Chase was the last to eulogize Gandolfini. And he delivered a touching, funny and highly personal tribute admitting that he was "honored and touched" to be asked, but also "really scared."

"I'd like to run away and call four days from now from the beauty parlor," he said, in an obvious reference to a passage in a new book about Gandolfini.

He delivered his eulogy as a letter to his friend Jim, and addressing the coffin at the altar, said: "I asked around, and experts told me to start with a joke or recite a funny anecdote. Ha, ha, ha. But, as you yourself said so often, 'I'm not feeling it.' "

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Chase recalled the first time he fell in love with his friend, the fellow son of an Italian-American laborer who came of age in blue-collar New Jersey. (Chase's father was a bricklayer, Gandolfini's a cement mason. "I don't know what it is with Italians and concrete," quipped Chase.) It was early in the run of The Sopranos, and they were filming in the hot New Jersey summer. Between scenes, Gandolfini had pulled an aluminum beach chair into the shade and was sitting with his pant legs rolled up to his knees, exposing his black socks and black shoes, with a damp towel draped over his head. "And I thought, 'That's really not a cool look,'" said Chase. "But I was filled with love, and I knew that I was in the right place. I haven't seen that since my father used to do it and my Italian uncles used to do it and my Italian grandfather used to do it. And it made me so proud of our heritage. And I was filled with so much love for what we were about to embark on."

They were of the same ilk, he continued: "Italian-American, builder, that Jersey thing." And the things they both loved, Chase continued, were "family, work, people in all of their imperfection, talking, food, alcohol, rage -- and the desire to bring the whole structure crashing down."

The 90-minute service was officiated by The Very Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski, who recalled being a fan of The Sopranos and Gandolfini, whom he met years ago at the Rainbow Room when both were there to attend a charity event. Kowalski noted that when laypeople expressed surprise that a man of the cloth would admire such a violent show, he explained that he felt Gandolfini was performing just for him. "And if the violent gangster could get me to think about family and conflict, then maybe there is this thing called hope."

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Everyone who eulogized Gandolfini noted the actor's intensity and talent and the heavy psychic price those attributes extracted.

"He was a master," said his close friend and acting colleague Susan Aston. "He worked hard. He was disciplined. He used his brilliant mind to ask the questions to prepare his heart for each scene."

And Chase recalled a time when Gandolfini told him, "You know what I want to be? I want to be a man. That's all. I want to be a man."

"And you were such a man," Chase continued, "But the paradox with you is I always thought I was seeing a boy -- a sad, amazed, confused boy. You could see it in your eyes. That's why you were a great actor."

Gandolfini died in Rome en route to the Taormina Film Festival, where he was set to receive a special award. The cause of death was cardiac arrest, according to an Italian coroner, and the body was flown to the U.S. on Sunday after an assist from former President Bill Clinton.

Chase told The Hollywood Reporter that he saw his star with wife, Deborah, and their new baby at a party just before Easter.

"Everything Jim did had a family feeling to it," Chase said in THR's Q&A.

Plepler told THR that Gandolfini used his experience as a struggling actor to "evince the pathos of his characters."

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